Tough questions in Israel over mystery prisoner death

Israeli MPs and commentators were on Wednesday asking tough questions about the mysterious detention and apparent suicide of "Prisoner X" after a TV report said he was an Australian Jew with ties to Mossad.

Twenty-four hours after the emergence of an explosive investigative report by Australia's ABC news, the Israeli censor moved to ease the total blackout on coverage of the incident, allowing the local press to publish details from the report.

The story of the so-called Prisoner X first emerged in June 2010 when Israel's Ynet news website briefly ran a story about a prisoner being held in top secret conditions whose identity and alleged crime were not even known to his jailers.

The story was quickly taken offline and a complete media blackout imposed, but it resurfaced on Tuesday when ABC identified the mystery prisoner as an Australian national recruited by Israel's shadowy spy agency.

With tight reporting restrictions in place, the Israeli media was completely silent on the affair.

What they did report was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had on Tuesday called an urgent meeting with top editors to ask them to cooperate by "withholding publication of information pertaining to an incident that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency," Haaretz newspaper said, in a clear allusion to Mossad.

But shortly afterwards, three MPs raised questions over the issue in parliament, effectively sidestepping the censor in a move which forced a slight easing of the reporting restrictions.

In its report, ABC named the prisoner as 34-year-old Ben Zygier, a Jewish lawyer from Melbourne who moved to Israel in 2001 where he was known as Ben Alon.

It said he was working for Mossad, and that his incarceration was one of the most sensitive secrets of Israel's intelligence community.

Before his arrest in early 2010, Zygier had been living in Israel for about 10 years and was married to an Israeli woman with whom he had two children, the channel said.

ABC had no information on why he was arrested but said he was taken to Ayalon prison near Tel Aviv where he was held in virtual isolation.

In December of that year, Zygier was found hanged in his cell, despite the fact it was equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance systems to prevent suicide, it said.

Although the press can now quote foreign media on details of the case, the restrictions bar any original reporting on the incident, a spokesman for the censor's office said.

In the ABC interview, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Canberra only became aware of Zygier's incarceration after his death and said he was troubled by the questions raised by the report.

But on Wednesday he confirmed he had ordered a review of the handling of the case.

According to a report in The Australian, he ordered the review after finding out that an Australian diplomat in Tel Aviv had been informed of Zygier's incarceration but "had not passed on the information through the appropriate channels".

It said Carr was unlikely to demand clarifications from Israel without a demand from Zygier's family for an explanation.

But in Israel, the questions were coming thick and fast.

In a letter to the deputy attorney general, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) on Wednesday raised a number of key questions and asked that the scope of the gag order be further limited.

"There is a strong public interest in the reasons behind the prisoner's death, and answers to the following questions: Are we indeed talking about suicide? Was there negligence in the supervision of the prisoner?" it wrote.

"In our estimation is is possible to answer these questions while maintaining both state security on one hand, and transparency about incidents or failures on the other," he said.

And Nitzan Horowitz, an MP with the leftwing Meretz, said he had tried to help the anonymous prisoner in June 2010 and had been assured the situation was under control.

"Nearly three years ago ... I contacted Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein with a request that he thoroughly check the stories about a prisoner," he told Channel 1 television.

"A very senior official from (Weinstein's) office got back to me and promised me officially that the matter was under full judicial oversight."